Assaults on bus drivers continue apace amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a spate of recent incidents in the south west region, where the union has thousands of bus driver members.
Unite condemned the attacks as the union reiterated its zero-tolerance call against abuse of bus drivers or any other of the many key workers who are keeping the country running amid the current crisis.
Most recently, two bus drivers in Bristol, employed by First Bus, were assaulted in separate incidents earlier this week. It is understood that the police were called to both incidents and that arrests have been made – one of the assaults came after the driver declined to open the door to the alleged assailant as the bus was full.
Responding to these incidents in Bristol, Unite regional officer Brett Sparkes said, “After the assaults the drivers were taken to hospital for medical checks, including for Covid-19 and HIV. The buses involved have also been thoroughly cleaned and decontaminated which was overseen by our health & safety rep.
“As this is now a police matter I don’t want to comment on the specifics of the incidents, however we unreservedly condemn all attacks, whether physical and/or verbal, against key workers.
“These workers, employed by bus companies, the NHS, local government and supermarkets, have kept vital services running smoothly during the continuing pandemic,” he added.
“We call on the justice system to take a strong line on such assaults – our frontline key workers deserve no less. Bristol’s dedicated bus drivers are important cogs in the transport system as more people return to work in offices, schools and businesses throughout the south west.”
‘Unbelievable amount of pressure’
The two assaults in Bristol come amid another reported incident in the south west, in Bournemouth, last night (September 2), when a young person allegedly attempted to board a bus with an invalid bus pass. When the bus driver challenged him, the youth threw a coke can at the bus driver, after which the assailant fled.
Also in Bournemouth in July, a man who was not wearing a face covering forced himself on a bus despite the driver attempting to refuse him entry. When the bus driver tried to get the man off the bus, the assailant hit the bus driver with a beer can and pushed him on the floor. The bus driver sustained a cut to his head and required hospital treatment.
Commenting, Unite regional officer Janet Wall said, “There’s an unbelievable and unfair amount of pressure and responsibility being put on bus drivers to manage policy because it is often bus companies’ policy for drivers to challenge passengers who try to board buses without masks.
“You’re putting a driver who more than likely hasn’t been trained in conflict avoidance in a position to deal with a situation that can escalate very quickly.”
“Bus companies must have adequate precautions in place to protect all bus drivers,” added Janet, who herself was a bus driver for 26 years before becoming a union officer. “I’ve been there on a Friday night after everything has closed and I know what it’s like to be isolated and alone and thinking what can I do if an incident occurs?”
Janet pleaded with the public to understand the enormous stress bus drivers face, especially now amid the pandemic when so many of their colleagues have succumbed to Covid-19.
“These are ordinary people doing critical jobs and they’ve got a right to go home safely to their families,” she said.
‘Instantly aggressive and confrontational’
As UniteLIVE highlighted in July, incidents of violence and abuse against bus drivers have risen steadily amid the pandemic across the UK, especially those involving passengers refusing to wear face coverings, which became mandatory on public transport in England on June 15.
One bus driver speaking to BBC Radio Manchester explained the reaction he often gets when he reminds passengers to wear masks.
“A lot of people, when asked, will pull one out of their pockets and be quite civil,” he said. “And then there’s a percentage of people who instantly become aggressive, as if you’ve said something rude or insensitive to them, they instantly just become aggressive and confrontational.
“I had a guy wish death upon my children because he didn’t have a face mask and I explained to him he couldn’t use public transport without one.”
In the capital there have also been many reports of bus driver abuse.
One London bus driver, who has lost three of his colleagues to the virus, told My London that it has become increasingly common for passengers to spit at the glass of drivers’ cabins.
Unite rep and London bus driver Joanne Harris said that bus drivers are often put in an impossible situation with regards to reminding passengers to wear face masks.
“It’s so difficult because the Government’s approach to the whole thing was that they didn’t want to make people wear them. Now they do,” she said, speaking to My London.“If [a passenger] doesn’t wear one you leave it at that, because our drivers don’t want to get involved.”
‘Ministers and bus companies must step up to the plate’
Earlier this week, transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the latest statistics showing that nearly 10,000 people were either refused entry on public transport for failing to wear face coverings or were asked to leave or alight the service they had already boarded. Despite this, less than 400 fines have been issued.
Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said that it should not be bus drivers’ responsibility to enforce mandatory face coverings, and added that the union has repeatedly raised concerns about passengers refusing to follow the rules.
“Legally only the police have the power to intervene and enforce the rules, bus drivers do not have the power to enforce the wearing of face coverings,” Morton pointed out. “Unite has made it clear it is not the role of bus drivers to enforce the rules of face coverings and they should not be asked to do so.”
Commenting on recent bus driver assaults, Morton added, “Unfortunately, the reported incidents are not isolated events – we have other such assaults reported by our members across the UK.
“For the last six weeks, we have been asking the government and the bus operators to monitor the number of passengers getting on buses, as many people are ignoring the instruction to wear face coverings on public transport,” he said.
“Despite Unite’s repeated calls for the government and bus managers to police what’s happening as more people travel to return to work, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
“Ministers and the bus companies need to step up to the plate to ensure the public complies with the instruction to wear face coverings on public transport,” Morton went on to say.
“We have 80,000 public transport workers across the country and Unite won’t tolerate such attacks on our members doing their best for the travelling public in exceptional and difficult circumstances.
“Unite’s officers and reps are working closely with the respective bus company managements to reduce the risk of assaults as far as humanely possible. We also strongly support the swift prosecution of all alleged offenders by the courts.”
By Hajera Blagg